Remembering Bob Stoodley by bike: the journey of Normandy-Stalag IV-B
On the 6th June 1944 Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy in the largest seaborne invasion in history, later becoming known as D-Day - marking the turning point of WWII.
Seven hours before the initial amphibious assault on the 5th June, four aircraft took off from RAF Harwell heading for Normandy. Aboard these planes were the pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company. Amongst this company was 20 year old Lance Corporal Robert "Bob" Stoodley.
Looking up at the camera, Bob Stoodley.
These pathfinders would not land on the beaches of Normandy, but behind enemy lines. Known for being "the first in", these 40 brave men would parachute in at just 500ft at 00:20 on D-Day. Their role was to secure the Drop Zones and plant Eureka Beacons, which would safely guide the Paratroopers of the 6th Airborne division and the 8th Para division. These divisions would then go on to destroy the bridges of the River Dives (East of Caen), playing a crucial role in protecting the main D-Day forces from the Eastern flank.
Landing in the village of Touffreville alongside three of his comrades, Bob Stoodley successfully planted and operated the Eureka Beacon guiding in the fellow Para Divisions. However an alerted enemy and heavily armoured unit moved in on their position, jeopardizing the security of the Eureka Beacon and the livelihood of these men. It was imperative this Beacon was not captured and comprised by the enemy, Bob was ordered to destroy it by his commanding officer Sgt Boardman. In the process he gave up his own position and alerted the enemy forces, resulting in mortar fire onto the shallow trench in which he laid. Injured, burnt and bewildered he was captured and tied up to the camouflage netting on an enemy armoured vehicle. Unbeknown to his fellow paratroopers they opened fire upon the vehicle, in the process Bob was shot in the leg. In the fire fight the tank commander did a 180 and reversed away to protect Bob for later interrogation, saving Bob’s life.
Once captured, Bob was taken to a German field hospital to lightly dress his wounds. Before being taken in a lorry to a French Chateau, to then be interrogated by the Feldgendarmerie (SS Field Police). A failed interrogation led to Bob refusing to give any information other than Name, Rank and Number. Shortly after, he was transferred to the Prisoner of War hospital in Rennes for further treatment, before being sent to the POW camp in Rennes.
On 5th July alongside around 600 other POWs, Bob was loaded onto a train not knowing where he was going. Crammed into “Box Cars” used to carry livestock with just straw on the floor, the smallest of windows and one small sanitary bucket in the corner, these 600 POWs were heading to the largest POW camp in Germany; Stalag IV-B, just south of Berlin. In appalling conditions the journey took about 23 days with 40 men in each carriage and a ration of a small amount of German Black Bread and dirty water. Bob recalls one instance when the train stopped they turned a rail-side grinding stone wheel to flick up dirty water to drink. The train was not just horrific but also fatal, with it mainly travelling at night to avoid the Allied forces. It was often targeted by Allied fighter planes thinking it was a German supply train, causing fatal consequences with many prisoners killed. Throughout the journey there were many attempts to escape, including cutting into the side panels of the train, however all were unsuccessful. After many reroutes due to destruction of tracks and bridges, the train finally arrived at Neubruxdorf and they were then transported to Stalag IV-B.
Here Bob would stay for ten months alongside another 30,000 POWs in the largest POW camp in Germany. As a trained engineer, he would rig up lighting from the main camp electricity and supply the lighting to the makeshift POW drama shows, to increase the morale for the other prisoners. He also had the clever idea of making his own form of a kettle by fixing a live element across two mains which hung in a metal tin container. This was until a fellow POW came in and said “tea”, just before touching the container. BANG! Bob immediately went to the medical centre after this incident, where he remained under care until the liberation of the camp in May 1945.
Acting Corporal Bob Stoodley of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, 6th Airborne Division.
However, after the liberation by the Soviet army many POW’s still remained prisoners, but under more relaxed circumstances. Bob with his friend and eventual Best Man, Paul Newton, managed to escape the camp. Stealing a motorbike with sidecar the two headed towards the advancing Allied forces, surviving several days by killings piglets and chickens in their journey to freedom. Whilst heading to the River Elbe at Torgau, Bob and Paul stumbled across a group of Russian soldiers who invited them for a drink. With a shortage of alcohol, the Russian soldiers had taken to mixing their wine supplies with petrol in a deadly cocktail. One sip and both of them spat out the concoction, before Bob was met by a barrel of a revolver in his face. Before being commanded to “DRINK”, the two had never drank so fast in their life, this was the final and nearly most frightful experience of the war. Just before reaching the crossing point at the River Elbe, Bob and Paul helped some political prisoners who had escaped from Brückenkopf Wehrmacht Prison. Once crossed the pair were met by American Allied forces, where he was debriefed, treated and safely returned to the UK.
Bob left the service in 1950 before marrying his wife Joyce, whose two brothers were killed during the war, Douglas at Dunkirk and her other brother Clifford at HMS Airedale. Bob turned his attention to business within the motor trade, but always stayed in touch with his fellow comrades. Bob enjoyed the family life having several kids, but also returning to Normandy almost every D-Day anniversary - always attending the single military grave of his close friend Edward “Paddy” O’Sullivan who lay rest in Touffreville where they landed in 1944. The villagers of Touffreville see “Paddy” as their single liberator, he lies there in a single Military War Grave and every year they hold a remembrance just for Paddy.
Evening sunlight across the north face of Everest. Photo: © markhorrell is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Bob had a thirst for adventures throughout his life and seized every opportunity which came his way. So when approached by Chris Bonington to organise the transportation for the 1972 and 1975 Everest South West Expeditions, alongside the International Karakoram Project, not only did Bob organise a pair of trucks for the expedition and drivers, but also demanded he’d be one of the four drivers! Bravely driving two overladen Ford D Series trucks 7200 miles - Kathmandu to London in just 24 days - Bob and his fellow drivers worked 24/7 through dangerous terrain, avoiding bandits and thugs, whilst also repairing the trucks themselves. Bonington’s own words were, “they could have replaced any of the top climbers with another and made it to the summit in 1975, but I doubt that anyone else could have succeeded in the task of delivering the expeditions’ vital equipment on such a hazardous journey by road”.
Bob lost his beloved wife Joyce in 2015 and was lost without her, everyday visiting her grave without fail until his health affected his mobility. His last few years of life were painful, but he never lost his love for Joyce nor his pride of being a member of the Pathfinders and his role in WWII. On 28th August 2021 at around 22:55, the last remaining D-Day Pathfinder, Lance Corporal Robert "Bob" Stoodley passed away aged 97. He was buried alongside his wife Joyce in St James’ Buxworth.
'Rapid Rich' Stoodley
78 years later, Richard Stoodley (Bob’s son) will retrace the route that his Dad took in 1944, not on a train, but on a bike. At 61, Rich has been cycling for ten years for fun, whilst also keeping his competitive side in shape by doing Hill Climbs for TrueSapien. An auctioneer by trade, this will be Richard’s biggest cycling challenge!
Richard will depart RAF Harwell on 5th June 2022, the same day his dad did in 1945. Richard will then arrive in Normandy for the D-Day commemorations, before commencing the rest of his journey from France to Germany. Initially heading through Brittany to Rennes, Richard will then head to Paris and transverse the Luxembourg/German border, before entering Germany going via Koblenz, Erfurt and Leipzig to reach his final destination of Stalag IV-B, just South of Berlin.
The route Richard will tackle is 3050km with 16139m of climbing, with the aim of doing it over 21 days and averaging just short of 145km each day - certainly no walk in the park! Due to the numerous detours and destruction of tracks when Bob took the treacherous journey from France to Germany, the exact train route is unknown.
However with the help of Bob’s memories, Google Maps and working alongside an American historian - whose uncle was a captured B52 Gunner and was on the second train out of Rennes in early August - Richard has managed to plan an accurate estimation of the route with the little information that was left after the chaos of the war.
Richard is not only taking this journey as a personal challenge, but also for his dad who unfortunately passed away at 97 in August last year. The journey will be hard, but also emotional for Richard as he weaves his way through France and Germany, on the same route his dad took 78 years prior. With the route initially planned for 2021, Richard is gutted that he couldn’t share the trip with his dad whilst he was still with us. However, the trip will be an honourable commemoration of Bob Stoodley and the sacrifices he made.
Ready and raring to go!
The ride will not only commemorate Bob Stoodley and follow the story of the war hero he was, but Richard will also be generously raising money for Support Our Paras, a charity which supports the welfare of both veterans and serving soldiers. Alongside this he hopes to educate and remind us all of how lucky we are today and how much sacrifice was made by both men and women during WWII.
Richard will be raising the money for the paratroopers via his JustGiving Page which can be found here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/richard-stoodley.
You can also follow Rick’s story and his journey across Europe on his website www.rapidrich.co.uk, as well as on his social media platforms on Facebook, or on his Instagram @Rapid_rich. Richard’s hill climb sponsor TRUESAPIEN and apparel sponsor PARIA will also be uploading content throughout!